To see what I could see

I had travelled more than a thousand miles to be surrounded by people, yet there I was, alone on a hard red-dirt trail in the Santa Fe National Forest.

To be clear, I was “alone on purpose,” as Nicole Morgan so deftly phrased it in her recent guest post. But following through on this intentional aloneness had taken great willpower. By choosing to set off solo on a hike that afternoon I was voluntarily leaving behind the potential of great conversations and new friendships—the very experiences I had in mind when I devoted a week of time and a sum of money to attend a Glen West writing workshop.

Many people at the Glen arrive in search of space and time to think and write, but as a full-time solitary writer who longs throughout the year for “colleagues,” I went to the Glen to fill that space and time with people. I needed a break from being alone with my thoughts and words, and during my first three days there I had accomplished just that. The mornings’ inspiring conversations in my non-fiction writing workshop transitioned into lunch hours sitting with authors I’ve long admired. Afternoons spent around courtyard tables, hearing about writing projects others were working on, gave way to more conversations over dinner, followed by engaging author and artist talks. Each night found me fighting the need for sleep as the extroverts and night owls gathered for more talk and laughter over whisky or wine, late into the night.

By that Thursday afternoon I had reached a state of “satisfyingly full” and knew some solitude (beyond the fast-asleep kind) would be good for me. It was one of those moments of awareness that separates childhood from adulthood: when you know that something—maybe eating those greens or getting up early to exercise—is important for your wellbeing, so you do it even though you don’t really want to.

I didn’t really want to be alone, but I knew it would be good for me, so I set out on the nearby Atalaya Trail to see what gift Aloneness might have for me in the midst of so much togetherness.

photo (9)The hard-packed ground was dry and gravelly, a shade of burnt, orangey-red that might as well be called New Mexico Red. I passed by Juniper and piñon, cacti, yuccas, and sagebrush, breathing in a heavenly-yet-foreign blend of scents that added a new layer to my aloneness: I was alone in an unfamiliar land.

As I continued walking, I began to wonder what range of unfamiliar creatures might call this arid region home (rattlesnakes? scorpions?). Then I recalled the coyotes whose sparring the night before had awoken me in my narrow dorm room bed, the windows open to the cool night air. Suddenly, alone took on multiple layers of meaning: I was not only by myself, far from others, but I was 7,000 feet above sea level in a foreign land, surrounded by potential dangers. The cell phone in my pocket didn’t even have service. I began anxiously singing, for company:

The bear went over the mountain,
the bear went over the mountain,
the bear went over the mountain—
to see what it could see.

I couldn’t remember what the bear saw, so I stopped singing and walking to just breathe—to calm the tinge of fear I felt and focus my mind on the quiet and the beauty that was all around me.

After walking a bit further, I reached a trio of wooden plank steps that carried the trail up and over a gravel road. Turning around, I lowered myself onto one of the steps, opening my water bottle and taking in the view below, the path I had just walked. The college campus, where all of those conversations and friendships had taken root the days before, looked small, but there it was, waiting.

I pulled my journal out of my backpack, turning to a page where I had taken a few notes while the poet Scott Cairns had read to us an evening or two before. A line from his poem “Draw Near” had especially captivated me:

For near is where you’ll meet what you have wandered far to find.

I had traveled all the way to New Mexico to be with other writers and artists—I needed new conversations and different perspectives to help reframe the story within me. Then I had traveled up this mountain for time and space alone, in a land so different from the one I know that I couldn’t help but be aware, notice, and respond—not intellectually but viscerally. And all of those miles, all of that wandering both with others and alone, had helped me meet what is very near, in my heart.

photo (8)

A brief personal history of an extrovert, alone

I am nine, and I’m standing at the kitchen sink washing the dinner dishes, utterly alone.

The dishes are my job every other evening, which means every other evening I feel a sense of abandonment and despair—the most acute embodiment of “woe is me” that a middle class American child can experience.

It is fall and getting dark earlier, so when I stare mournfully out the kitchen window toward the backyard, hoping for a bit of beauty or distraction, only the vague silhouettes of bare trees and my own sad reflection are there to keep me company.

I’ve finished washing the glasses and silverware, but the piles of tomato-sauce-glazed plates and—worst of all—pots and pans still loom large. In the next room I hear my dad complain about a referee call in the game he’s watching on TV. I hear my mom cheerfully greet Sasha, our dog, as she lets her in from the back yard. My brother passes through purposefully on his way to get a schoolbook from his bedroom. And I am alone with these dishes.

Of course, I’m not really alone. The rest of my family is within reach, but they seem emotionally out of touch. So from an early age this becomes my definition of alone. And I hate it.

*   *   *   *

I am 16 and in the backyard reading Pride and Prejudice for the fourth or fifth time.

It’s spring break. My boyfriend is off on a trip to North Carolina with his best friend, and all of my closest girl friends are somewhere warm with their families. But surprisingly I don’t feel sorry for myself for being stuck at home with nothing to do. Instead, I’m getting a start on my tan, enjoying the rare early-April warmth and indulging in a week of reading books, old and new.

Suddenly it’s easy to remember why reading had been my favorite pastime as a younger child, before it had gotten lost in the mix of boyfriends, tennis practice, school clubs, and a part-time job. On this April day, I’m happily reacquainting myself with my love for books, and also with the warmth of the sun after a long Michigan winter.

I am completely alone but it doesn’t occur to me that I’m alone, because I am completely content.

*   *   *   *

I am 20, a junior in college, and I am falling in love with someone who seems, in at least one important way, to be not like me: I am falling in love with someone who loves to be alone.

He shares an apartment with a group of guys across the hall from where I live with my friends, and an open door policy has been established. As his roommates watch TV before dinner, I watch him take a cup of tea and a book out to the hammock he strung up on the balcony. As my friends and I talk and goof around before bed, I see him walking home alone after several hours in his painting studio.

Suddenly I am certain that “alone” is something I’m not good at, and I see that as a flaw—the result of insecurity and a sign of shallowness. It has not occurred to me that my love for being surrounded by people—for being in the thick of conversation and debates, silliness and laughter—is a product of who I am, how I’m wired.

Likewise, as I’m falling in love with him I see his ability to be alone as something admirable, deep, and brave—not as a product of who he is, how he’s wired.

I’m hopeful I can learn from him.

 *   *   *   *

I am 30 and married to the painter—for eight years already. Our toddler and infant are both tucked in their beds for the night, and I am sitting alone on the loveseat in my cozy sunroom, an issue of The New Yorker open on my lap.

As an exhausted young mother, this moment should feel more delicious than it does. The house is quiet, and within the realm of these walls I have the freedom to do whatever I want. But what I want most is companionship, conversation. A look of recognition and understanding, a dose of empathy for whatever small trials the day brought. Someone to help me laugh.

I flip to the magazine’s table of contents, hoping to find something with the right mix of intellect and heart—the sort of piece that engages both my mind and emotions the way a good conversation might.

It is fall, and mostly dark outside the row of tall windows to my right. But in the back corner of our yard a bright square of light shines from the old one-car garage, now a wood shop and studio where my husband works each night on an art project he is preparing for an upcoming show. After this show is installed, there will be another show to prepare.

A lover of logic, I turn to it, hoping to find comfort: My husband teaches all day and needs every hour he can spare to create the art that drives his career. I get that.

My head is able to reason out my aloneness, but that doesn’t make it feel OK anywhere else.

*   *   *   *

I am 34, and I am alone.

My two busy daughters, now four and six, are in bed for the night, their questions and negotiations, stories and songs silenced by sleep.

photo (4)I brew a cup of tea then sink gratefully into the sofa to work on a sweater I’m knitting. Remnants of the busy day are scattered here and there throughout the house—a Playmobil scene carefully arranged on the coffee table, too many pairs of shoes and rain boots by the front door, a small stack of dinner dishes in the kitchen sink. But it’s OK, I’ll get to them later.

Since my divorce, I’ve been able to let go of the unhelpful sense that it’s someone’s job to keep me company. I’ve also been able to quiet the inner nag insisting that it’s my job to keep the house clean. When you’re alone, the consequences of waking up to a messy kitchen are also yours alone. Maybe it’s time to teach the girls how to wash the dishes, I think, as I pick up my knitting.

For now, I’m just sitting on my sofa, alone, and it is good. It’s good because I’ve finally learned that alone and lonely are two different things. I’ve learned that being someone who derives energy and ideas from interactions with others is a part of me to embrace and nurture, not to fight. And I’ve learned that savoring time alone allows me to process and express all that I’ve soaked in from being with others.

Now I can see that “alone” has always been important to me, and I’ve even been good at it, in my own way. Finally I’m able to call it what it is—just “alone,” apart from lonely—and embrace it for what it is: a gift of respite and reflection, and nothing to fear.

*   *   *   *


 (No one should ever do dishes alone.)

Together, Undefined

It was 8 pm on my daughter’s 15th birthday, and I remained a Mama on a Mission, gearing up for the home stretch.

The mission, of course, was making my daughter feel as special and loved as possible—a mission that’s more challenging, I’ve discovered, when your children are teenagers and less likely to buy into the enthusiasm in your voice as you sell them on some random idea: Bowling would be a fun birthday treat! If my daughter had her way we’d be seeing Broadway shows in New York for her birthday, but in reality I had less to work with.

By 8 pm on this particular birthday, we had already completed our typical activities: a mother-daughter outing (which in this case involved a new ear piercing); a birthday dinner at the restaurant of her choice, with the seven people who make up her immediate family (mom, dad, sister, stepmom, half-brother, stepdad, step-sister); and finally dessert and presents back at home. My now-15-year-old already had a big party with friends the night before, so now what?

“Do you want to go anywhere?” I asked.

“No, I just want to be home,” she said, smiling contentedly.

“Should we rent a movie?” I suggested. “Or play a game?” I know very well that games are not her favorite pastime, but I couldn’t help myself. In my family experience, both as a child and an adult, this is what you do when you’re together: You play games. Sitting around a table covered with the pieces of a game is my family’s quintessential definition of togetherness.

“No, I just want to be home and do whatever,” she said, a trace of exasperation edging into her voice. “I’ve had an amazing birthday! Can’t we all just be here but do our own things?”

As an extrovert, I (not for the first time) had to pause and forcibly wrap my head around this less structured version of “Together.” I could see my other daughter re-calibrating as well, as we tried to imagine that the birthday girl’s idea of a fun birthday might not look exactly like our plans for her. After all, we were there to serve! To entertain! To focus all of our time and energies on HER! And she wanted to go up to her room and try out the new guitar pedal she just unwrapped? We had to let that sink in.

“Well…OK. If you’re sure,” I said.

She was, of course, sure.

6647530355_0233217d07_zAs the sounds of reverberating electric guitar and my daughter’s pure voice serenaded us through the ceiling, the rest of us looked at each other in somewhat sheepish agreement: Let’s play a game. In her own way, she was right there with us.

*   *   *   *   *

While I probably wouldn’t choose “alone in my room” as a way to spend my birthday evening, upon a bit more reflection I realized that I know a thing or two about this desire my daughter often has: to be together yet alone.

Since February 2002, after nearly a decade of working in populated office settings, I’ve worked essentially alone, as a writer. When I was in the process of deciding whether to take the leap and start my own business, my biggest fear wasn’t Will I have enough clients? or Will I make enough money? It was this: Will I be able to work alone?

Not only am I social—someone who is energized by being in the mix, having people to go to lunch with, and feeling connected to others who are dealing with the same bosses and projects—but I’m also most creative in collaborative settings. In other words, I worried not just that I would be lonely working by myself, but also that the very skills I was selling might fall flat if there weren’t people around to bounce ideas off of and provide critique.

I decided to take the leap anyway, and was lucky enough to discover that technology was my safety net. It was the growing availability of wireless Internet, in particular, that prevented me from gradually slipping away from myself, sitting day after day at the desk in the corner of my living room. Wireless Internet meant I could take my laptop—all that really comprised my “office”—to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, where I could be together yet alone.

photo (3)In that coffee shop, I learned it was the mere presence of bodies and voices—being surrounded by activity and the gears of many brains thinking and creating—that I craved more than anything else. In the unnatural silence of my empty home I felt slightly on-edge and easily distractible, but the buzzing white noise of the café allowed me to dive into my work and ride a stream of creative flow for hours.

There’s simply something powerful—at once comforting and freeing—about being autonomous yet in community, whether that community is family or strangers at a café. It’s an experience that carries a certain rightness and balance: In a single moment and place, it acknowledges and respects both our “sameness” as humans and our “difference” as individuals.

Ultimately, both identity and empathy are strengthened through that single form of togetherness. When I think of it that way, I can see what a wonderful gift it was to give my teenage daughter on her birthday—and what a wonderful reminder it was for her to share with me.

*   *   *   *   *

Photo of the game “Carcassonne” by Aslakr. Coffee shop photo by Kristin Tennant.

Out of Place in Yourself

At the time, I had no way to describe it other than, “I just don’t feel like myself.”

Feeling out of place in my own skin was new to me. I was the person who seemed comfortable almost everywhere—the one who struck up conversations with grocery store cashiers while they scanned my purchases and with other parents as we watched our children play at the park. I didn’t get nervous at job interviews or speaking in front of a group.

The world was a fairly comfortable place. I had somehow lucked into the type of personality that “fits” best in the world, a circumstance that then snowballs in the best possible way: My general comfort allowed me the luxury of assuming the best of others and believing I also had something good to share with them.

But then, that vague out-of-placeness began lingering. It was like a dark cloud just over my shoulder, gradually seeping then settling deep into my bones. At first I was able to override it, when I needed to, but eventually it took root as a feeling of insecurity—a sense that I was no longer comfortable with myself, or with others.

Rather than seeing strangers as potential friends, and seeing friends as people who were looking out for my best interest, I began seeing them all as possible agents of hurt, as people not to be trusted with my fragile being.

I also saw myself as having little to share with others. Where I had once felt powerful in my ability to enrich and brighten people’s lives, I suddenly felt sure I would do the opposite. So I did something I had never done before—I turned inward.

*   *   *   *   *

IllinoisfieldUnfortunately, this turn in me coincided with a move I did not want to make, to a place I did not want to live. My then-husband had accepted a job in the middle of Illinois, so we moved our two daughters (one still in diapers, the other a busy preschooler) away from the wooded lakeshores of West Michigan to the flat cornfields of Illinois.

But it wasn’t the landscape that left me feeling foreign—it was being surrounded by people who only knew this out-of-place version of me. My history, my core, the way I had been just a year or two before—they were all unknown to the people around me, which made those parts of who I was feel even less real. When reality is shifting, one of the only comforts is being able to look into the face of someone who sees and recognizes it too—someone who can say, “I know. You are not crazy.”

It would be months before someone knew me enough to ask—and I trusted her enough to listen—“Do you think you’re struggling with depression?”

Now, looking back at that time, I find it hard to believe that I could have been so oblivious to something so obvious. But in most cases, depression sneaks in so gradually that you don’t recognize it, and then it changes you so profoundly that, before you know it, you don’t recognize yourself. It’s disorienting in the most fundamental way. Even your own sense of who you were—who you are at your core—is distorted and suspect.

*   *   *   *   *

Thankfully, anti-depressants have been effective for me, especially paired with a whole lot of self-reflection and a determination to uncover and embrace my truest self (which in many ways I had never done, even back in those pre-depression days when my skin and the world I moved through felt so comfortable).

Now I have a decade’s worth of perspective on that time in my life, and I’m able to see this: If depression is one of the darkest of clouds a human being can try to live beneath, my experience with it has a silver lining. Not only has it allowed me to develop great compassion for others who feel out of place—whether that sense is rooted in depression or in a too-narrow set of societal expectations and norms—but it has also revealed to me what love looks and feels like: a deep desire for wholeness in another. God’s love for me is rooted in his desire for me to live fully as my true self, the person he created me to be. And likewise, that is how I am called to love others, from my husband and teenage daughters to the people in my community who rub me the wrong way: To love them is to long for them to be at home in their skin.